Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

YouTube’s Music Videos: Popular, Money-Losing. For Now.

[UPDATE: Negotiations between YouTube and music labels are already getting unpleasant: Warner Music’s clips are disappearing from the site, and both sides are taking credit for the move.]

Universal Music Group officials told CNET this week that they’re going to make close to $100 million from Internet videos this year–an 80 percent increase–and that most of that will come from Google’s (GOOG) YouTube.

I believe that may be possible–in part because people close to Universal Music Group told me the same thing earlier this year. But I think that those YouTube dollars may not continue to increase at the same rate, whether it’s for Universal or any music label.

That’s because YouTube’s current arrangement with the labels is a money-losing one, people familiar with the company tell me. And that’s unlikely to continue as the company renegotiates its deals with the four major labels–UMG, EMI, Sony (SNE) and Warner Music Group (WMG)–which expire throughout next year.

Here’s how the current deals work: Whenever someone clicks on an official video that’s been sanctioned by the labels, YouTube has to pay the labels either a per-stream fee or a share of ad revenue associated with the clip, whichever is greater. Since YouTube is just beginning to get serious about selling ads next to its content, it’s usually paying the per-stream fee, which industry executives peg at about half a penny per clip.

That kind of deal might have been OK during Google’s go-go days, but it’s unlikely to fly now. And as Google execs start sitting down with the labels, it’s reasonable to think they’ve got much more leverage. While music videos are some of the site’s most popular programming–look at how many label-sponsored clips like Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” are among the site’s most popular offerings of all time–Google doesn’t need their blessing in the way that YouTube did when it was still transitioning from rogue copyright violator to upstanding citizen.

Meanwhile the labels are under great pressure to dig up dollars wherever they can find them because their core CD business evaporates day by day. Universal Music recorded some $4.4 billion in revenue during the first nine months of this year, so $100 million in high-margin video revenue would be a meaningful contribution to the bottom line. But it may be harder to get in 2009 than it was this year.

I can’t show you most of YouTube’s most popular clips here–the site disables embeds for those. But here’s a less-viewed one I do like.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik